When United Methodists join with Native Americans and others in Colorado this weekend to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, their participation will mark another step in a denominational process of “setting the historical record straight.”
The historical record includes the fact that Col. John Chivington, a Methodist clergyman, ordered the cavalry charge on Nov. 29, 1864, on an unsuspecting, peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, slaughtering more than 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elderly men.
Since then, all most tribal descendants knew about Methodists “was they were responsible for this massacre,” said Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, who has taken a leading role in trying to heal the church’s relationships with Native Americans.
The church’s efforts, which include adoption of “An Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples” by the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, give it “an opportunity to demonstrate we are life-affirming people,” Stanovsky said.
Many church members in the Mountain Sky Area, which includes the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences, will participate in Nov. 29-Dec. 3 events organized by the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission.
“There’s been, I think, an unprecedented focus throughout the metropolitan Denver area and really across the state on this piece of history,” said Stanovsky, who is a part of the commission.
Some of the focus has come from the United Methodist-related University of Denver, founded by Colorado Governor John Evans just two weeks before the massacre. The university has sponsored a number of educational events about Sand Creek as part of its anniversary observances, the bishop added.
The University of Denver also recently released a report about the involvement of Evans in the massacre, which finds the former superintendent of Indian affairs “culpable for the Sand Creek Massacre.”
Starting with ‘prayerful preparation’
The 150th anniversary events Nov. 29 in Eads, Colorado, and at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, 160 miles southeast of Denver, include:
- Prayerful Preparation for Opening Ceremonies at 9 a.m., sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Conference, Eads United Methodist Church.
- Departure by bus from Eads to Sand Creek Massacre Site, noon.
- Opening Ceremonies for the 150th Commemoration, 1 p.m.
The National Parks Service, which maintains the massacre site, is providing educational resources for the Saturday morning service and has scheduled two viewings of a new Sand Creek documentary at an Eads movie theater that day.
All congregations in the Mountain Sky Area are encouraged to remember this tragic event during worship Nov. 30 with 150 seconds of silence and other liturgical acts, including Holy Communion. The Rev. Michael Dent, of Trinity United Methodist Church in Denver, a congregation with direct ties to the Sand Creek Massacre, put together worship resources.
The Spiritual Healing Run & Walk for the commemoration begins at sunrise Nov. 30. Stanovsky, her husband, Clint, their three sons and other family members will be among those who run or walk on any or all days of that event through Dec. 3. By mid-November, the Rocky Mountain Conference had raised $16,000 to support 32 Native American participants in the run/walk.
About 100 United Methodists are expected at the Eads service. The congregation has “pulled out all the stops this year” to support the run and enlist other congregations to help provide meals to participants, the bishop said.
Local churches are making 500 boxed lunches for runners and walkers over the four days of the run, and the United Methodist Church in Limon, which has supported the event for many years, will serve dinner on two nights.
June pilgrimage to Sand Creek
In June, the Rocky Mountain Conference turned its annual gathering into a two-day teach-in on the Sand Creek Massacre, ending with a caravan of 13 buses carrying some 650 conference members and guests, including descendants of the massacre’s survivors, three hours into eastern Colorado, to the historic site. It was the largest single day of visitation at the Sand Creek site since its 2007 dedication.
The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., who helped lead the denominational work on the Act of Repentance, took part in the June pilgrimage and said that journey “set the stage for the events that would follow this November and educated or reminded people of the historical facts of Methodist involvement.”
Sidorak also joined the Rev. Alfred T. Day III and the Rev. Robert Williams – the current and former top executive, respectively, of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History – at an Oct. 9 symposium on the Sand Creek Massacre at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
The commission has been supportive of the Act of Repentance and Day, who will be in Colorado on Nov. 29, said it was important for the agency “to be physically present and represented in continuing to work through the process of healing and reconciliation.”
One of the presenters at the Washington symposium was Gary L. Roberts, a historian who also is preparing a report about Sand Creek for The United Methodist Church. The Commission on Archives and History is funding that report.
The denomination must come to terms with the way Native Americans have been treated and with Sand Creek in particular, Sidorak said. “Gary’s research will reinforce and underscore that there was direct Methodist involvement in this atrocity,” he explained.